Business & Economics

Jerry Ellig was a great economist, a great colleague and a great friend

Eight who knew and worked with him talk about what was so special about Ellig, who passed away last week

Jerry Ellig. Image Credit: Abby Greenawalt, The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center

Our longtime colleague and friend, Jerry Ellig, died last week at the age of 58. Jerry was an early graduate student at the Center for the Study of Market Processes, the Mercatus Center’s predecessor, and his career in regulatory economics bridged theory and practice. In the academy, he served on the faculty of George Mason University and the George Washington University and on the research staff of the Mercatus Center; in addition, he put his ideas into action, serving in senior positions in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Jerry’s inquisitive personality and willingness to eschew convention led him to stand out in a world sometimes too hidebound by received wisdom and tradition.

As a colleague and mentor to dozens of economists, legal scholars and policy analysts, Jerry was generous with his advice and time, and kind in his words and deeds—two characteristics frequently in short supply in the academy and the policy world. Below, some of Jerry’s colleagues, mentees and friends reflect on his legacy and the imprint he left on the world and those around him.

James Broughel

Jerry was a major influence on my intellectual development. I can honestly say that he was one of just a handful of thinkers I have known in my life that changed the way I think about economics and about research. What I will remember most about him is how careful and thoughtful he was. More than anyone I know, he embodied what it means to be a scholar. He cared so much about getting research right and about expressing only the truth. I have so much respect for that.

Jerry served on my dissertation committee, we wrote numerous papers and op-eds together and he was my mentor. He taught me about regulations and how to think about their effects from an economic point of view. His passion for regulatory analysis greatly influenced me and is one of the main reasons I have made my own career in the same area.

Everyone will tell you how wonderful a guy Jerry was, about how funny he was, about the Hawaiian T-shirts that he always wore and about how he made fun of himself as a cheap economist who bought all his clothes from Walmart. And they’re right: He wasn’t just a good economist, he knew how to relax and have fun. He loved tiki bars and a night out with friends. Those are things I’ll remember too. Losing Jerry is a huge loss. I will miss him.

James Broughel is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center.

Susan Dudley

I’ve been lucky to call Jerry my friend for more than 20 years. He was already a core scholar in the Center for the Study of Market Processes (as the Mercatus Center was then called) when Wendy Gramm brought me and the Regulatory Studies Program there in 1998. Over the next few years, we enticed him to apply his talents increasingly to regulatory issues, and my respect and affection for him grew. Jerry and I each took turns in government, he at the FTC and later chief economist of the FCC, I at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB, but we stayed in touch. After I started the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center, we talked of him joining me there, and in 2018, he did! He was a perfect fit with the small, motivated team, and we loved collaborating again.

What made Jerry such a wonderful scholar and colleague? It’s true that he was brilliant at applying economic concepts and empirical analysis to improve public policy, and that he enjoyed not only studying but finding solutions to real policy problems in government and academia. He was also a generous mentor, supporting and collaborating with graduate students and colleagues to publish prolifically in peer-reviewed economics, public administration and political science journals, as well as law reviews and more popular publications. He was a great communicator, able to take his academic work and translate it for different audiences, including through testimony, seminars, op eds, short presentations and classroom teaching.

But despite all these achievements, I think Jerry’s most outstanding quality was his personal humility and good-natured approach to work and life. I never heard him indulge in gossip or negativity; he endeared himself to people, even those who disagreed with him, because he was genuinely good and kind, unpretentious and honest, open-minded and laugh-out-loud funny. I remember once when we were at Mercatus, everyone was grumbling about a cost-cutting measure that asked staff to double up in hotel rooms at conferences. Jerry used his outrageous humor to lighten the mood with, “Sharing’s fine with me as long as, if it’s with a guy, we get separate beds.” Everyone who worked with him will miss not only his intelligence and productivity, but his affability, Hawaiian shirts, trademark parrot tie and wit.

Susan Dudley is director of the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.

Brian Mannix

Economists who know the origins of the “dismal science” appellation wear it proudly; it arose originally because economic principles are fundamentally incompatible with slavery. But in the case of Jerry Ellig, the phrase just doesn’t seem apt—he was the very opposite of dismal. He was relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. And conversations with Jerry never were the sort of arcane arguments that are so common in the academy; rather, they were constructive, exploratory and creative. I worked with Jerry at the Mercatus Center, and then again at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center, and he seemed always to be learning new things and teaching what he knew.

Jerry was a man of many talents, and he viewed every problem as an opportunity to find a solution and do some good. When he visited Washington, D.C., he would sometimes stay in our townhouse. On his first visit I apologized for the constantly running toilet in the guest bathroom; I was unable to fix it because it was installed under an immovable shelf and I couldn’t even see inside the tank. “No problem,” he said; and after his second visit he announced that it was all fixed. He had arrived with a standard toilet valve in his luggage and was able to replace the defective part without even looking!

Those who knew Jerry are all too aware of what we have lost with his untimely passing. But we are also aware of the vastly greater loss to the general public who never knew him but were the beneficiaries of his insightful contributions to public policy.

Brian Mannix is a research professor at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.

Ajit Pai

Many things spring to mind when I think of Jerry Ellig—brilliant academic at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center, chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission and other professional distinctions. But it’s a good indication of the mark Jerry left that what lingers with me is his warm smile.

Jerry and I had the privilege of working together at the FCC from 2017 to 2018, when he served as the agency’s chief economist. On several occasions, we sat down in the chairman’s office to discuss some difficult issues. Jerry would always start off the conversation with a warm smile, which put everyone at ease. He would then explain in a collegial tone how he thought we should proceed—wisdom that always informed our ultimate decisions. Smiling and speaking gently are small things, perhaps; but at a time when the currency of public policy discourse is too often pounding the table, Jerry’s approach was memorable.

Speaking of difficult issues, Jerry was immeasurably helpful to the FCC’s work during a momentous time. While he was chief economist, the agency tackled high-profile issues like market-based internet regulation and the establishment of the Office of Economics and Analytics. With respect to the former, he wrote cogently on sound economic foundation underlying the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, both at the agency and after.

Jerry was invaluable in ushering in one of the FCC’s most fundamental structural reforms in recent years: strongly supporting the centralization of the function of economists and data analysts in the new Office of Economics and Analytics and rightly viewing this as a way to systematically incorporate principles such as cost-benefit analysis into the FCC’s work. As a side note, when I first proposed what would become the OEA, I specifically mentioned that I wanted economists to have a forum in which they could write FCC white papers, reflecting broad thinking about the intersection of economics and communications. Unsurprisingly, the very first white paper issued by the new Office was written by Jerry, along with Catherine Konieczny.

I was shocked when I learned that Jerry passed away. My deepest condolences to his family and friends. His memory will always be a blessing to many; it certainly is to me, as I recall him with a smile.

Ajit Pai served as chairman of the FCC from January 2017 to January 2021.

Adam Thierer

If someone asked me to describe the perfect colleague, I’d tell them about Jerry Ellig. I first met Jerry almost three decades ago, and the first thing I noticed about him was that he was the only guy in the room wearing a necktie more flamboyantly colorful than my own. I struck up a conversation about it with him and off we went, joking about that and then all sorts of other things. A 30-year friendship was born.

We both covered telecom and media policy and so continued to interact regularly for years, the best of which came when we finally got to work together at Mercatus, just a few doors apart.

Having a friend and colleague like Jerry around made life easier and more enjoyable than you can possibly imagine. I’m not sure anyone ever made me laugh and smile as much as he did. Jerry always had a grin plastered on his face, even when he was expressing exasperation at some crazy proposal that had most of us fuming and screaming. In the world of policy analysis, it’s easy to get angry about a lack of progress in the battle of ideas. But Jerry never got that way. The man took everything in stride and was always reminding his colleagues about the important contributions we had made over time.

Jerry was a wickedly smart policy analyst and was always brimming with entrepreneurial ideas about how to go about our work. I was always bouncing project ideas off him because I knew that, without fail, he would improve every one of them. Whenever you’d ask Jerry for some thoughts on something, he’d always start by saying, “You know, it’s funny . . .” and the proceed to tell you a story about how the exact research question you were struggling with had actually been haggled over many times throughout history.

Jerry had a robust knowledge of economic history and could brilliantly bring together that history and hard data to tell a compelling story. Back when Mercatus was still known as the Center for Market Processes, Jerry co-authored a 1997 report with Robert Crandall on “Economic Deregulation and Customer Choice” that I continue to believe is the best thing ever written on the topic. Jerry was also an amazing mentor to students. He knew how to get them excited about their education and research, which is one reason students loved working with and learning from him.

I will miss Jerry something terrible, but I won’t ever forget his inspiring, jovial presence. I was blessed to work with the perfect colleague and to call him a friend. I just wish I could see that unforgettable smile once more.

Adam Thierer is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center.

Richard Williams         

There are many things I will remember Jerry for, but probably foremost is the fact that I never heard Jerry say a negative word about anyone. He was just that kind of person. He always seemed to be smiling as though, wherever he was or whatever he was doing, it was the best place to be.

Jerry introduced me to Frankie’s in Las Vegas and to the whole tiki culture. I knew nothing about any of that before meeting him. We drove up to a strip mall with a cement-block building in the front, and Jerry warned me that I wouldn’t be able to see anything for a while once we entered. Sure enough, it was so dark I couldn’t see anything, but when I did, I found myself in the famous Las Vegas tiki room where Frank Sinatra had once had cocktails.

Jerry and I co-authored a few things, including what may have been his last paper, “David versus Goliath,” about how the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is outgunned against the regulatory agencies. We came up with a few suggestions on how OIRA might improve the odds. But that one paper is just a small part of the immense body of work he produced.

I remember testifying with him before a Senate subcommittee, and one annoying senator asked Jerry about who funds the Mercatus Center. Jerry shot back, “Senator, I don’t know and I don’t care.” Jerry was a dedicated scholar, and he didn’t commit to anybody’s opinion on what his findings should be.

I miss him immensely. He was such a positive force in my life, and I looked forward to working with him on projects into the future. He can’t be replaced. He was one of a kind, and the best kind at that.

Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar and former vice president for policy research at the Mercatus Center.

Joshua D. Wright

I met Jerry in the fall of 2004, in my first weeks as a then visiting assistant professor at George Mason University Law School. Jerry was right down the hall at Mercatus, having just left the Office of Policy Planning in the Federal Trade Commission. I had just finished my Ph.D. in economics at UCLA and was starting my career as a legal academic doing law and economics. At the time, I largely thought of the world of economists interacting with law and regulation as falling into two camps: (1) economic theorists who wrote down models about what a central planner could do but largely ignored law and the inner working of legal institutions that shape the incentives of those that operate within them; and (2) empirical economists who used changes in the law and legal institutions to measure their impact.

Jerry was neither of those. Of course, he could do work in either of those groups. He did important empirical work arising from his time at the FTC on the effects of restrictions on interstate wine shipments. Indeed, he was one of the first people I turned to with questions and challenges in my own work on the effects of regulation in alcohol markets. But his real comparative advantage was that his work took seriously the incentives inside legal institutions—usually regulatory agencies. Jerry didn’t just do the economic theory of regulation; he did economic analysis of regulation. He understood how the FTC worked from his time inside the agency. He understood not only telecommunications markets, but also the FCC as an institution. He understood not only how to conduct regulatory analysis, but the Office of Information and Regulatory Analysis. And knowledge of those institutions showed up again and again in his work, not just as window dressing for formal economic analysis, but in deep, careful analysis of how the design and structure of those legal institutions affected behavior and performance. Jerry’s great legacy will include an incredible accomplishment in this vein: steering Ajit Pai’s effort to change the institutional design of the FCC to improve the quality of its own decision-making with economic analysis. Anybody who has been inside a regulatory agency knows how difficult this sort of meaningful change is to achieve.

Jerry was a role model. He exemplified the parts of law and economics I found most interesting and challenging. And he showed that the secret to doing it well wasn’t on a blackboard; it was to be found the hard way—through combining experience inside the agencies with sharp economic skills and knowledge of industries. But as the numerous tributes to Jerry also make obvious, he was just a great friend and a wonderful guy to be around. He was always smiling. He told great stories. He wanted to talk about your work. And he had read it. He had a knack with students and young professors. He always knew the right paper, the right story or the right question to ask to get you moving in your intellectual journey. I will miss him greatly.

Joshua Wright is university professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

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